The last time I had been to the Vatican Museums was on our honeymoon in 1998 and to the Basilica with my mother in 2006. In 1998, my husband Steve and I went to the museums before there was an option to book on-line, but I don’t recall standing in a queue or if we did, the wait not lasting very long. It was September, but so incredibly hot. I remember being overwhelmed as well as underwhelmed inside the museums as I sweated from room to room. Weeping Madonna, weeping Madonna, weeping Madonna. I just didn’t understand the appeal. I missed a lot and understood even less.
Fast forward to 2016 and this time Through Eternity invited us on one of their tours. We work with several long-standing reputable walking tour companies in Rome and Through Eternity was one of the first we worked with as they started the same year we did in 1999. Despite very positive reviews from past guests over the years about their tours, we had never actually been on one so I happily accepted their offer. After looking at their many tour choices, I decided on the Vatican. We have many guests who have the Vatican on their “to see” list and so I thought I would like to experience it again, but this time with a well-informed guide.
Of the two Vatican tours they suggested, one was an extensive 5 hour tour and the other was a 3.5 hours. I wanted the full experience so I opted for the 5 hour tour. Mario was our guide, a Dutch transplant who has been living in Rome for several years and has a background in art history and theatre. He was very knowledgeable and friendly and definitely knew his way around the Vatican.
Tickets are available in advance on-line, but it’s amazing how in 2016 people still queue up to purchase tickets. The queue for this is extremely long and you’ll find yourself standing for at least an hour if not longer before you’ve even entered the museums. Thanks to Mario, we passed all the queues and went straight in. We only had to wait a few minutes while he went to pick up the pre-arranged tickets. After that, we followed the masses up into the museum.
The Vatican Museums are not just one museum, but many museums within a museum. It’s simply impossible to see each and every work of art here. Mario explained that if you were to just spend a few seconds in front of every work of art in the museums, it would take you many years to see everything! I could have easily spent an hour alone just in the The Gallery of Maps seen here:
Mario led us through to the more important artworks and even so, it still took us 4 hours to get through and we even bypassed several areas such as the Egyptian Museum. The Vatican Museums receive an average of 25,000 visitors a day, but its rooms, doorways and corridors were not constructed for this kind of traffic so in peak season when the place is packed, it’s slow-going.
There are several outdoor courtyards throughout including the Cortile della Pigna seen here. These are great spots to get some fresh air and escape the close quarters.
The Sistine Chapel is found within the museums and it took us at least an hour to get there from this courtyard. It’s very difficult if not impossible to make a direct bee-line from the entrance of the museums to the Sistine Chapel, so keep that in mind. I don’t have any photographs here of the chapel because it’s a no-photography zone. I still saw people trying to take photos and who were probably able to get away with it because of the crowds, but don’t be a jerk and respect the few rules they have.
From the museums, you are able to go directly into the Basilica. Despite being the largest Catholic church in the world, it still felt manageable. Mario explained that this effect was due to perspective and that in fact the statues and lettering in the church were all incredibly large.
Our 5 hour tour ended 6 hours later and my husband and I were utterly exhausted, but despite that we immediately were eagerly thinking about a future Vatican tour we would like to take. Once was definitely not enough. Although next time I think we’ll opt for a 3 hour tour so that we can also fit in climbing the dome again – something we didn’t have an opportunity to do this time around.
Some of my tips on touring the Museums & Basilica:
- At the very least, order your tickets on-line.
- Better yet, take a small group tour – a small group tour at the minimum consists of 6 people and at the most 15. We had 8 people on our tour. A small group tour allows you to actually listen to and interact with your guide and the others in your group. There are several reputable companies in town including the long-established Through Eternity company with whom we did our tour. Guests of The Beehive receive a 10% discount on most of their tours.
- Cover knees and shoulders. You will not be allowed inside the Basilica if you do not have them covered – this goes for men, women and children.
- Bring a bottle of water and rest when you can. It gets hot in the museums especially in the summer – no AC and very few places to sit. There are several outdoor courtyards throughout. Take advantage of these spots to sit and rest and fill up at the outdoor fountains that are marked “Acqua Potabile” (Potable Water).
- Bring a picnic-style lunch. There are a couple of cafes at the museums, but I thought the food was barely edible and overpriced. After that experience, Steve and I decided that we could offer something better so if you would like us to prepare a picnic-style lunch for you to take with you, let us know. Orders must be made at least a day in advance. For more information, ask at our reception.
- Reconsider bringing children to the museums if aged 0-12 years old. I saw several very young children while we were there and my heart went out to them and their bored and tired little hearts. No fun for the whole family! The museums are just too much for little children – it’s an exhausting day for the parents and if grown adults want to throw a tantrum after hours at the museum, you can imagine what the kids will be like. Either hire a babysitter or plan on coming back to Rome and visiting the museums when the kids are in their teens. This doesn’t apply to the Basilica which is much less time consuming and more manageable.
- Give yourself time to climb the dome – it’s an incredible experience, but reconsider if you are overweight, suffer from a heart condition or are claustrophobic.
Thanks again to Mario for his insight and knowledge and Through Eternity for their generosity and for allowing us to see the Vatican with new eyes.